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South Korea’s Moon scraps Olympic visit after diplomat’s ‘unacceptable’ remark

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at a luncheon meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on June 30. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

TOKYO — South Korean President Moon Jae-in has scrapped a planned visit to Tokyo for the Olympics and to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, his office said on Monday, shortly after lodging a protest over "unacceptable" remarks by a Japanese diplomat.

South Korea had objected to a news report Friday that said a senior diplomat at Japan’s embassy in Seoul had described Moon’s efforts to use the Olympics to improve relations between the two countries as “masturbating.”

“President Moon has decided not to visit Japan,” Park Soo-hyun, Moon’s press secretary, told a news conference, adding that the two sides had been exploring ways to tackle rows over history and boost cooperation but did not reach agreement.

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“The discussions were held amicably and made considerable progress, but it still fell short of being considered as a summit result, and we took other circumstances into account,” Park said.

The two countries had been talking about holding a first-ever summit between Moon and Suga to try to repair relations between the United States’ two closest allies in the region that had fallen to postwar lows.

An official at the presidential Blue House, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, told reporters that talks had met a “last-minute obstacle.” Later, another official, said Moon’s office had become “skeptical” about his trip after hearing about the “unacceptable” remarks.

Suga described the remark as “extremely inappropriate for a diplomat and extremely regrettable,” and Japan’s Kyodo news agency said the government plans to remove Hiroshi Soma, the deputy chief of mission, as a result.

Moon will instead send the culture minister to Friday’s Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo, his office said, wishing Japan a safe and successful Olympics.

Suga said he will seek to continue dialogue with Seoul while maintaining Tokyo’s “consistent position.”

Relations between the two countries continue to be inflamed by the legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, as well as by territorial issues. The neighbors have clashed over the issue of compensation for Koreans forced to work for Japanese firms and in military brothels during Japanese colonial rule.

Last month, South Korea also objected to a map on the Tokyo Olympics website showing a set of islands controlled by South Korea, but claimed by Japan, as Japanese.

Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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